How do you properly care for an African spurred tortoise?
Is it safe to keep these animals in captivity?
Do these tortoises make good pets?
Many people do not fully understand what keeping a healthy tortoise entails when they decide to rescue one.
This is detrimental to the animal’s health and well-being.
We’re here to help with our primary care guide for these cute and long-lived pets.
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African Spurred Tortoise Care
The best way to care for sulcatas is to simulate their natural habitat as close as possible, provide them with plenty of space to graze, roam, and burrow, and be sure to feed them a diverse diety to ensure proper nutrition.
The African spurred tortoise, also known as the sulcata tortoise, is the third-largest tortoise in the world.
These reptiles are natives to the southern edge of the Sahara desert in Africa.
Understanding how to adequately meet sulcata tortoises’ needs is vital before deciding to bring one into your home.
Many owners do not realize how large these tortoises can grow or how long they can live and ultimately surrender their tortoises to local animal shelters.
Sadly, this is the fate of many sulcatas adopted by underprepared owners.
If you are considering rescuing a sulcata or you have recently adopted one, this article will teach you basic general care and how to raise a healthy tortoise in an environment in which it will thrive.
Baby Sulcata Tortoises
Sulcata tortoise hatchlings measure approximately 2″ inches (5 cm) long and weigh anywhere between 30g and 40g.
They have a yellow, tan, and brown coloring and will get darker as they grow and age.
Sulcatas grow very quickly and for an extended period.
Similarly to humans, these tortoises will grow until they are 15 or 20 years old.
To support their growth, baby sulcatas should be fed daily for the first year of their life.
These animals are herbivores, meaning they eat strictly plant-based materials.
As a general guide, you should feed your tortoise the amount of food equivalent to its shell size.
Some suggest feeding 1/4 cup of grasses and leafy greens to tortoises under six months of age once a day and 1/2 cup per day to tortoises six months to one year.
Once your tortoise is older than one year, it is safe to feed them three times per week.
This will help to avoid overfeeding your sulcata, which is the most common mistake tortoise owners make.
Since calcium is a vital nutrient to these reptiles, it is a good idea to feed your baby tortoises a calcium supplement twice per week.
It is essential to maintain a shallow water dish with fresh water at all times for your baby sulcatas.
Even though these animals are native to the desert, they need to stay hydrated and drink water whenever available.
It is a good practice to spray your nursury’s substrate with water daily and to provide a moist hide for the tortoise to escape to.
Wetting the substrate will imitate natural dew and will allow your tortoise to soak up some moisture regularly.
Having a moist hide provides your tortoise with various microenvironments and allows them to naturally regulate its body temperature.
When you are adopting a baby sulcata, be sure to determine your tortoise is healthy before making the final trip home.
Even as babies, these tortoises should be active and willing to eat, whether at home or a reptile show.
Since sulcata tortoises have such a long life span, you will likely find the opportunity to rescue an adolescent or even a fully grown tortoise from a rehousing situation.
In this case, you will not have to account for such drastic changes in size.
Instead, you should be prepared from day one with how to care for an adult sulcata tortoise.
Adult Sulcata Tortoises
Adult African spurred tortoises are large but docile.
These tortoises get their name from their place of origin and the large spurs growing from their thighs.
African spurred tortoises originate from the Sahel region of the Sahara desert.
The Sahel is the realm of transition between the Saraha desert and the Sudanian savanna.
This area has a semi-arid climate and is made up of grasslands the tortoises roam and graze.
The spurs they are named for are most pronounced on their front legs and are used as a defense mechanism.
When an African spurred tortoise feels threatened, it will retreat into its shell.
The large spurs on its thighs will act like armor and protect its head.
Their alternate name, the sulcata tortoise, is derived from the Latin word sulcus, meaning furrowed.
This name refers to the tortoises’ sculpted appearance.
Adult male sulcatas can grow anywhere from 2-3′ feet (.9 m) in shell length.
These tortoises weigh between 80lbs and 150lbs, and they can grow even larger.
Adult males tend to be larger than adult females.
Female sulcatas average 18″ inches (46 cm) in shell length and weigh between 70lbs and 100lbs.
The average lifespan of a sulcata tortoise is 80 years, with some tortoises living up to 150 years.
With the right care, these pets are likely to outlive you.
Be sure to have a care plan when you are no longer able to look after your tortoise.
Approximately 70% of an adult sulcata’s diet should be made up of free grazing of the enclosure you provide it.
Ideally, you will be living in a warm climate with a large enclosed outdoor space for your tortoise to roam and graze.
Since these tortoises spend most of their time grazing in the wild, this environment will help activate their natural behaviors.
It will also keep your lawn mowing to a minimum, as your tortoise will cut your grass daily.
If you are able to provide your tortoises with an outdoor enclosure for them to graze every day, you will only need to feed them twice per week.
Since these animals are continually grazing and are from deserts where food is not always plentiful, it is essential to be wary of overfeeding them.
Like baby tortoises, it is vital to provide fresh water for your adult tortoises to enjoy every day.
While it may be rare to catch your tortoise drinking, do not mistake this for them not needing water.
A shallow water bowl may not be enough.
Water bowls don’t simulate natural rainwater enough.
These animals need to stay hydrated.
Since they mainly drink rainwater in the wild, these reptiles are naturally attracted to running water.
If you are able to provide your tortoise with water coming from a fountain or sprinkler, it will be very appreciative.
This is why water dishes don’t work well, though they are generally suitable for providing clean water.
African Spurred Tortoise Diet
African spurred tortoises are grazing herbivores.
While they only need to be fed a few times per week outside of their regular grazing, these animals require a nutrient-dense diet and should be fed various foods.
Like many other reptiles, these tortoises are highly dependent on vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D3, and vitamin A.
Tortoises need calcium to ensure they can grow and maintain a healthy shell.
A diet lacking in calcium and high in protein can lead to shell deformities and other serious illnesses.
To recap, approximately 70% of a grown tortoise’s diet will come from grazing on grasses and hays.
Baby tortoises need to be fed daily, with the amount of food measuring to be roughly their shells’ size.
Below is a list of suggested vegetation to feed your baby and adult tortoises.
Vegetables and Leafy Greens to Feed Your Tortoise
- Hibiscus Leaves
- Spineless Prickly Pear Cactus
- Mulberry Leaves
- Turnip Greens
- Dandelion Greens
- Collard Greens
- Yellow Squash
- Grass Hay
- Timothy Hay
- Various Grasses
When feeding your baby tortoises, it is essential to cut up the food into small pieces, making it easier for them to eat and digest.
You will also want to place the food in a feeding dish to prevent your babies from accidentally consuming substrate stuck to the food.
This could lead to impaction, which is harmful to tortoises.
Be sure to add variety to your tortoise’s diet.
As a rule of thumb, never feed your tortoise only one food. Instead, provide them with a small variety.
For instance, if you feed your tortoise hibiscus leaves and collard greens, add in some slices of spineless prickly pear cactus pads.
These cactus pads are very hydrating and nutritious, making them an excellent added food to any typical salad.
Yellow squash acts as a strong source of vitamin A.
Shredding this vegetable and adding it in with your choice of dark leafy greens is a natural way to ensure your tortoise is consuming this vitamin.
Sulcata tortoise diets are very high in fiber.
When choosing what to feed your tortoise, it is crucial to refrain from feeding them greens and vegetables high in oxalates or oxalic acid.
This compound is found in some vegetables and will bind to calcium in the digestive system.
This binding process prevents the animal from absorbing calcium and can result in a calcium deficiency.
While it is not suggested to feed fruit to your sulcata tortoise often due to its high sugar content, adding a little fruit to their diet now and then is acceptable.
A great way to hydrate your tortoises and give them the metabolic moisture they need is by feeding them watermelon and cantaloupe rinds.
Providing these fruit rinds once every few weeks will be a beneficial treat greatly appreciated by your tortoise.
Foods to Avoid
Many vegetables have oxalates, but the main ones to avoid feeding your tortoise are listed above.
Although it is not dangerous to feed your animal these greens on occasion, you should avoid them.
African Spurred Tortoise Habitat
Baby sulcata tortoises should be kept in either a 50-gallon tank, a sturdy plastic tub, or a turtle table.
This indoor enclosure should have walls tall enough to keep the tortoise in and should be large enough for the tortoise to grow.
Once your tortoise reaches one year of age, it is best to move it to an outdoor enclosure.
Temperature And Lighting
The best way to keep an adult sulcata tortoise in captivity is by providing it with a large yard in a warm climate.
Sulcatas naturally live in a dry, arid climate and spend the hottest parts of the day burrowed underground.
These animals are ectotherms, meaning they rely on their external environment to regulate their body temperatures.
They need a cage temperature gradient or different temps across their cage.
The environment your tortoise lives in should average 80-95° degrees Fahrenheit (35° C) during the day with 100° degrees Fahrenheit (38° C) hot spots, and should drop no lower than 70° degrees Fahrenheit (21° C) at night.
For tortoises living indoors, you must maintain these heat levels consistently and provide UVB light.
UVB rays are vital for these animals.
UVB helps them synthesize vitamin D3 and process calcium.
When raising your baby tortoises, it is a good idea to move their enclosure outside if possible, leaving it half in the sun and a half in the shade.
This will expose them to natural UVB rays and fresh air.
Be sure to place a mesh covering over the top of the enclosure to deter predators from stealing your pets.
An outdoor tortoise enclosure should be a minimum of 100′ square feet (30 sq. m) and should be surrounded by a reinforced wall 2′ feet (.6 m) high and 12-18″ inches (46 cm) sunken into the ground.
Since these animals are burrowers, having a reinforced wall sunken into the ground will deter your tortoise from escaping.
It is vital to note sulcata tortoises will burrow in your yard and are likely to disrupt your landscaping somehow.
Not all owners account for this natural habit and cannot continue to care for their pet reptiles.
When your tortoise is living in your yard, be sure to avoid using any pesticides or fertilizers.
These chemicals can harm your tortoise.
Your sulcatas should have some form of indoor housing, even if they live full time outdoors.
Providing them with an insulated and heated barn or dog house will be sufficient.
Be sure the enclosure does not drop below the aforementioned nighttime temp.
This will be a nice alternative to burrows for your tortoise to escape to regulate its temperatures.
Sulcata tortoises enjoy climbing, so providing logs for them to play on is mentally stimulating.
If you have trees in your yard, their leaves may act as food sources, and their shade will provide yet another place for the tortoises to cool off.
When placing multiple tortoises in the same enclosure, be sure the enclosure is large enough for all tortoises to roam and graze comfortably.
It is essential to refrain from placing different-sized tortoises together in the same enclosure.
Placing a large male tortoise and a mid-sized male tortoise could lead to fighting, tipping, and even death.
Some tortoises have been known to murder fellow tortoises with whom they have turf wars.
Overall, sulcata tortoises make for a great pet if you are able to provide them with an appropriate environment to live in.
They are very food motivated, making it easy to encourage them to move where you want without attempting to pick them up.
Some sulcata owners say their tortoises act like dogs, albeit slower.
These tortoises are very friendly and often follow their owners around once they have formed a bond.
African Spurred Tortoise Common Illnesses
Below is a list of a few common illnesses present in African spurred tortoises.
This is not a complete list, and you should obtain further information from a veterinary professional.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Like many other reptiles, African spurred tortoises are prone to metabolic bone disease if their diets lack calcium or are too high in oxalic acid.
This calcium deficiency will cause the tortoise’s body to supplement the lack of calcium by stealing the mineral from its bones and shell.
This can lead to further bone and shell deformities, such as pyramiding.
Pyramiding refers to a condition where the scutes on the tortoise’s shell will grow upwards, forming a pyramid shape.
A slight raising of the scutes is natural in older animals, but it is still a condition to be wary of.
Lack of proper hydration can lead to several illnesses in sulcata tortoises, such as impaction, kidney stones, and renal failure.
If your tortoise is suffering from impaction, this essentially means it is constipated.
A lack of hydration in their diet can lead to this discomfort. It will most likely pass but may need veterinary attention.
Kidney stones and renal failure are also side effects of a dehydrated tortoise.
The body needs to stay hydrated for the kidneys to function properly.
Remember, cactus pads and occasional fruit rinds are an excellent source of metabolic moisture.
African spurred tortoises are a lot to care for, but they’ll be one of your best friends for the rest of your life.
With proper knowledge of caring for these fun pets, they’ll live a long and happy life.
Make sure you know what you need to about their diet and habitat, and you’ll be all set for a fun relationship.